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Highlands Astronomical Society

Stargazey Pie October 2006

It’s not every meeting we get such a high profile speaker as the Astronomer Royal for Scotland to give us a talk! Tuesday 3rd October was a jam-packed meeting, not only for the famous Prof John Brown, but also to catch up on all the latest doings of the Highlands Astronomical Society. Open days reports, aurora photographs, the Breakout groups, and of course the banter and chatter at the half-time tea break and biscuit session. Another classic meeting then, that started with the latest notices read by Chairwoman Pauline Macrae:

  • Open Days – Yourinverness. This took place 9th Sept at the Sports Centre. The ‘yourinverness’ event attracted a large number of local clubs and societies, but it seems that there may have been more exhibitors than visitors. Despite this, more than 40 programmes were handed out, and the talk given by Maarten was one of the more successful, with a whopping 8 attendees! (We didn’t tell the organisers that 7 were already HAS members!) Thanks were expressed to Pat Williams, Pat Escott, Maarten, myself (Antony), Arthur and Lorna Milnes, and Joan Thomson, who all helped man the stand on the day.
  • Open Days – Eastgate Centre. This took place Sat 23rd Sept, and was probably the more successful event of the two for us. After initial worries about the new rules and regulations that had been drawn up by the Eastgate Centre management, it came as a great relief that setting up and running the event on the day was actually a lot easier than had been expected, and all the contact with the Eastgate staff, especially the Security people, was extremely good. The day was a great success, with many enquiries about HAS and astronomy in general. The icing on the cake was the public viewing session at Culloden in the evening. It was attended by several of the daytime visitors to the Eastgate Centre, and the sky cooperated wonderfully, yielding great views of galaxies, clusters, planetary nebulae and the planet Uranus, through telescopes that members had taken up with them. The Milky Way was clearly visible and from about 10pm there was even an auroral display, which was a joy to watch and photograph, as you can see by visiting the website image gallery. For this event Pauline thanked Pat Williams, Pat Escott, Simon Urry, myself (still Antony), Eric Walker, Arthur Milnes, Arthur Fraser, John Gilmour, Linda Moncur, Rita Cameron, Tom Hunt, David Hughes and Lewis Forbes for helping on the day, Rob Nuttall (for the posters), Highland TV of Greig Street (for the super television and DVD equipment), and the Eastgate management and staff.
  • Observing sessions. If you missed the excellent session on 23rd September, don’t worry- there will be many more chances to take advantage of the great sky views from Culloden! Our observing schedule is up and running, and October’s observing sessions are listed below:

Friday 13th Oct...... Pauline Macrae
Saturday 14th Oct.... Trina Shaddick
Friday 20th Oct..... Antony McEwan
Saturday 21st Oct..... Dave Hughes

  • Ring, Ring… By now all members should have the latest telephone contact list, unless you joined after Pauline had printed it out or had asked not to be included. If you are still awaiting yours or would like to ask for one, please contact Pauline. If you joined after the last list was printed, you can still be contacted. This list is handy, as when Pauline spots a supernova she can then phone around and get everybody up to Culloden to witness the historical event for themselves.
  • Einstein A Go Go (to Wolverhampton). If you happen to be in Wolverhampton on 16th October, you are invited to attend a talk called, ‘Proving Einstein Right’. Dr Ian Morison will give the talk, and further details are available from Pauline.
  • Christmas Shopping. Christmas is coming and the catalogue of clothes, mugs and other bits and pieces onto which our logo can be embroidered / inscribed / stuck is being shown around again. If you fancy having a look and ordering something, please contact Pat Escott to arrange a viewing!
  • Talks. If any of our members gives a talk to any group at all, please let Pat Williams know, as we are trying to keep a record of these activities. This is partly to show that we are fulfilling the educational component of our constitution, but also because it may be useful to share material between talks. It also helps us keep track of who all the noisy rabble-rousers are too…
  • Science Festival. Last year’s ‘Going Nova’ event was very successful, and this year we are hoping for more of the same- and some more! The dates for this year’s event will be from 22nd through 25th November, with the following provisional schedule: 22nd Energy Day; 23rd rail travel in the future and hear about your chance to get into space with Virgin Galactic, 24th Schools day and the Faulkes Telescope, 25th Public day with special evening entertainment. Volunteers are once again being sought, with promises of free entry to the talks and events being offered as lures. Please contact Pauline or Maarten if you are interested. More details will be released at next month’s meeting.
  • Postponement and Replacement. Prof. Keith Horne is unable to speak to us in December, as he will be in Paris on the night of our meeting. Personally I felt this was an ideal opportunity for a field-trip tie-in event, but the Committee (in their wisdom) felt it better to replace his planned talk on Gravitational Lensing with one by our own Eric Walker on building his own observatory. So there you are; ‘Gravitational Lensing’ in Paris, or ‘Building Round Sheds’ in Inverness. Complaints to be hurled at the Committee please.
  • SAG AGM HAS REP. If anyone is free to attend the Scottish Astronomers Group AGM as HAS representative, please let Pat Williams know. It will be held on Saturday 25th November in the Airdrie Public Library, Airdrie, from 1pm onwards. This will clash with the Science Festival in Forres mentioned above, but it is important that we contribute to SAG, so perhaps you’d like to consider contributing an article to their magazine or standing for office?
  • Next Year. There is a new 2007 Astro-calendar, which has been put together by Liverpool Astronomical Society. As well as the usual things like Christmas and my birthday, it also contains monthly star charts, predictions of lunar occultations, and large-scale inserts highlighting noteworthy celestial events. The Astro-calendar can be ordered direct from Eric Hutton or you could contact Pat Williams instead. The calendar costs £2.00 plus postage, or massive discounts can be obtained by ordering in bulk (10p off each copy if you order 10 copies). If you want to add your orders to other members’ and save on postage, speak to Pat ‘Super-saver’ Williams.

Open Day Report

Pauline took some time to show some photographs of the aurora that occurred on Sat 23rd, and described the great time we all had at the Eastgate Open Day and the viewing session at Culloden afterwards. For more information on how this went, you can the read the field report on the Society News page of the HAS website,

The Main Event

‘Abra cad Astra’ by Prof. John Brown

Professor John Brown is the current Astronomer Royal for Scotland, a post he has held since 1995 when he became the 10th person to hold the position. He has an impressive number of scientific qualifications, including (but not limited to) 1st class BSc degree in Physics and Astronomy at University of Glasgow, PhD on Solar Plasma Physics also from University of Glasgow, and DSc in Plasma Astrophysics. He has published over 250 papers, one book and four book chapters, and despite a very heavy workload in his work with various space projects and educational organisations, still finds time to give around ten public lectures each year to societies, schools and science festivals.

Professor Brown likes to use magic tricks to demonstrate some of the more mysterious or hard to grasp principles of astronomy. It is a technique that is entertaining and thought provoking, and makes for some light relief in the midst of the very serious mental gymnastics we are often forced to undertake to sort out some of the mysteries of cosmology, physics and quantum mechanics.

Perhaps one of the most fundamental mysteries of the universe is gravity. Gravity differs from planet to planet, and Prof Brown illustrated this by using a trick called Newton’s Nightmare. A ball bearing was dropped through a length of tube held vertically. It took about half a second to pass through, thus demonstrating Earth’s gravity. But then he produced a specially imported Mercurian ball bearing that would show how gravity on Mercury would affect the experiment. The Mercurian ball took about 3 or 4 seconds to drop out the bottom of the tube!

Prof. Brown has a serious interest in all things solar, as is shown by his history of solar research projects, many of which are linked to studies of our local star. One subject he brought up was Helioseismology. This is the study of wave oscillations in the Sun, and can be used to determine conditions inside the Sun, including temperature. He raised the point that physics shows us that heat always flows ‘downhill’, and yet in the Sun it increases from the Sun’s surface (6000’C) to the Corona (2,000,000’C), so it is clearly flowing ‘uphill’. By measuring the vibrations of the ‘surface’ of the Sun, which amount to about 2cm per second, and by knowing the gases that exist in the Sun’s interior, the temperature of the Sun’s core can be calculated. This showed one of the serious sides of Prof. Brown, and that he raises interesting questions that require some thought and effort to answer. Of course he then showed his lighter side by performing a card trick that also showed the temperature of the Sun’s core. A random card was produced by a volunteer, and then matched to a numbered grid that had a box for each card in the pack. The random card matched nicely with box number 27, and the temperature was shown to be about 27 million degrees F!

Prof. Brown had divided his presentation into various different sections, each focusing on a single mystery or group of mysteries. One of his groups was ‘Cosmic Uncertainties’, and it included something he referred to as ‘observational uncertainty’. This was particularly interesting for those who consider themselves to be ‘observers’! He described it as seeing what you expect to see, and went on to demonstrate it brilliantly with the use of a false finger attached to one of his hands. He waved his hands around quickly, and no one detected it. He then slowed the waving down, and it really had to almost stop before it began to sink in that something was odd about his hand!

A second example of this was a graphic of a chequerboard with a cylinder on it, which cast a shadow. A ‘dark’ square and a ‘light’ square were marked A and B, and the question asked, “Is square A darker than square B?” Naturally, it appeared to be so, but when a small section of square B was highlighted and dragged across the computer screen so that it was adjacent to square A, it was revealed that they were exactly the same shade! This was amazing, and showed the inaccuracy of trusting your eyes too much as it is actually your brain that sees, by interpreting the information that passes through your eyes. This was very thought-provoking stuff.

Other ideas were raised, discussed, and illustrated by use of the Professor’s impressive arsenal of tricks (most of which worked) that served to entertain, but also, educate us to quite a high degree. It has to be said that Prof Brown’s talks are not only informative and fun but also quite different to what most people might think of as a ‘science-talk’. We would like to thank him very much for taking the time to travel to Inverness and entertain us, and for all the encouragement and support he has lent to the Highlands Astronomical Society, especially for the new observatory project.

One word summary? Magic!

Eyes On The Skies

September gave us a very encouraging start to this observing season, with the public session at Culloden on the 23rd providing viewing opportunities for many newcomers to the hobby, or re-igniting an interest in observing in some who have resisted its pull for a while.

That night was almost an entire observing season all rolled into three hours! We saw galaxies, double stars, planetary nebular, open and globular clusters, and even a planet- Uranus. Not content with just that, how about a display of aurora borealis just for the sake of completeness? Done.

One thing we didn’t see was a comet, but this month we have a chance to see one of those as well. Comet Swan is a relatively bright comet currently passing through Ursa Major and Leo Minor, and can be seen in the early hours of the morning. By mid-October it will have swung around the Sun and will be visible earlier on in the evening sky. It is a binocular and telescopic object, shining at about magnitude 7 at the moment, though it is hoped that it will reach magnitude 6.6 towards the end of the month. The comet has already been observed through the low haze and glow of Elgin by our friends in SIGMA, so we really ought to make an effort to catch sight of this promising comet, and put some observation reports on the website message board! More information on the comet can be found at the comet section of the British Astronomical association website, and there are links there to suitable finder charts too.

While you’re looking low down in the sky, turn southwest and see how much of Sagittarius you can spot above the horizon. If you can make out the very top of the ‘teapot’ lid you should still be able to get some views of M8, the Lagoon Nebula, which is a stunning object that combines a cluster of stars and large areas of nebulosity. Also, globular cluster M22, open clusters M21 and M23, and two other fabulous targets, the Eagle Nebula M16 and Swan nebula, M17.

These objects are very close to the horizon though, so best to be prepared before the last rays of daylight have gone, and try to find them as soon as it is dark enough to detect them. If you really want a challenge in the first couple of weeks of October, try going for the ‘Swan Trio’ - start off with the Swan Nebula as your first target for the night just after sunset, take your time exploring the constellation of Cygnus high overhead, then finish off with Comet Swan in the pre-dawn sky.

Next Time. November’s meeting takes place at he Green House on Tuesday 6th at 7.30pm. We will hear Maarten de Vries giving his presentation entitled, ‘Orbital Manoeuvres In The Dark’. Sounds like fun, so bring your spacesuit if you have one! There will be the usual Breakout groups too, and the Equipment group are focusing on equatorial mounts for the faint-hearted or frustrated, and may even poke around at some collimation issues too.

In the meantime, make the most of whatever dark skies we are presented with, and maybe try to come along to our observing sessions at Culloden. If you see anything interesting or have a question or comment, please drop in to the Spacegazer Message Board and leave a message.

Dark Skies!

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